Now You See Me: Second Act (2016)

Ok, I’m exhausted. This is like the third post in 24hrs. I’m just going to do a short one anyway.

I had some pretty low expectations for this show because I looked up the film’s ratings online before going to catch it (I hardly ever catch a film completely cold… I’m too afraid to waste money on a bad film) and they were pretty uninspiring. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was well-entertained throughout this film.

There were some good laughs, the acting and delivery of the lines were solid as was the plot. I think.

I think I’d’ve been able to tell better if I had rewatched the first film before going to catch this one in the cinemas. And this is one of my chief complaints about the film. With Now You See Me coming out three years before in 2013, I could barely remember what that film was about other than the fact that I remember enjoying it thoroughly.

Second Act however requires that you remember who the antagonist from the first film is, and what the big reveal at the end of the first film was. Not overly demanding on the part of the viewer, for sure, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember these two points from the first film so I spent half my attention during this film trying desperately to recall what happened in the first film.

I have a feeling I would have appreciated what the film did with Mark Ruffalo’s character much much more if I could only remember the particulars of the first film. So my recommendation is to rewatch that film before catching this one.

My other complaint about this film is that unlike the first film, the filmmakers were not quite as careful in drawing the line between stage magician magic and movie magic.

What was truly unforgettable about the first film was the opening sequence where Jesse Eisenberg’s character flips through a deck of cards and asks you (his audience in the film and YOU, the film’s audience) very quickly to pick a card and remember it before revealing that card with mind-boggling accuracy on the side of a building.

That scene captured the charm and beauty of the whole film. The ability of the trick to break the fourth wall and pull you in as if you were one of the audience members within the film was a truly novel experience. This aspect of the first film was lost in the scale and grandeur of the heist in Second Act. Unfortunately.

That being said, if you’re going to catch this film, look out for the stunningly and thoughtfully choreographed magician’s fight scene full of smoke and mirrors in the film. That’s a nice physical scene that brings real characterization to the film and real genre specificity to the fight.

Yup. That’s it from me on Now You See Me: Second Act. It’s a fun film despite its flaws. I’m glad I caught it 🙂

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The Conjuring 2: The Tension between Seeing, Not Seeing and Seeing Too Much

James Wan has done it again. The Conjuring 2 is a horror success and as far as I can tell the franchise is on an upward spiral. It’s got more or less the same formula with its episodic structure, the Warrens, the two intersecting cases and a family in peril. But this time, the plotting is tighter and the themes of family and familial love and support are more tightly woven into the plot structure with the conscientious use of doubling and parallels between the Warrens, the pre-credit case, the main case and even the ghosts.

I want to spend some time talking about how Wan plays with the tension between Seeing and Not Seeing through his use of jump cuts and long takes. While I’m sure he’s not the first horror director to do this, he does use these techniques very effectively.

The thing about jump cuts in horror where the camera doesn’t move and the frame remains completely still but the ghostly figures within it seem to cover incredible distances in the blink of an eye creates a sense where even if if you have your eye trained on something, there’s no way of seeing what is happening or piercing the veil into the other side, so to speak. It’s a helpless kind of fixed staring that you force yourself to do, thinking you can master the horror by seeing it but the camera work shows you unequivocally what an exercise in futility that is. So to me, these sort of jump cuts are set up with the intent of letting the viewer ‘see’ something only for them to realize that they still can’t, even if the camera work, the mise en scene/framing seems to be attempting to help the audience ‘see’ better.

On the other hand, the long-takes that do foreground the horror happening in real time whether the character and the audience is watching or not, ALSO hark back to how futile the use of sight in place of mastery is. I want to use two examples from The Conjuring 2, but I also don’t want to spoil it? So I’m gonna go with 2 clap-clap game sequences from The Conjuring (2013) instead.

In the sequence where the mother unintentionally plays hide-and-seek with the ghost, her vision is compromised but ours and the camera’s is not. We see her walk towards the cupboard that has opened on its own and through which two ghostly hands have reached out to draw her over to them with two resounding claps in the echoey, empty house. Trapped on the other side of the screen, all you can do as the audience is sort of curl up in your seat and hope nothing happens to her.

In the other sequence, where the camera pushes in on the mother’s terrified face as she’s trapped in the basement, back against the door, illuminated solely by the flickering match in her hand, the long take ends with two hands reaching out from the shadows behind her to clap twice right beside her face before the candle gets snuffed out. As a member of the audience, you know it’s going to happen, the music and the tension the director has ratcheted up in the scene all tell you it’s going to happen and you see it happening but you still can’t stop yourself from screaming.

(ok. I know. It’s a jump-scare but omg it was the best moment in the film I can’t not talk about it even if it’s a little out of point… I’m sorry)

So these long-takes seem to indicate how even if you could see the horror unfolding (which the jump cuts deny you), it’s completely, utterly and absolutely useless anyway. So both positions, Seeing and Not Seeing become equally terrifying to the point where you don’t know what to do with yourself. Now, that’s a good horror film.

The Conjuring 2 does something more with who gets to see that makes the film even more interesting and called to mind one of the elements that Ju-on (2002) did really well and got credited for when that film came out.

So this brings me to my last point about Seeing Too Much because both Conjuring films seem to break down at the climactic moment because the power of suggestion is set aside in order to show you the horror, to give it an actual visual representation. And this externalizing of the demon and giving it physical/visual form turns the the possession narrative suddenly into a monster narrative. I don’t understand why he does this but assuming there’s a reason, why doesn’t it work?

When horror is in the mind of the viewers it’s much more frightening than when it is given physical/visual form because what’s scary to one person may not be scary to another. Especially, when you have horrible, uncooperative, desensitized horror film fans like myself (I’m sorry! C’mon! My earliest film memory was watching Poltergeist (1982) on TV when I was three!).

As an example, the demon in Insidious (2010) looked like Darth Maul; and the Crooked Man in this film just looks like Jack Skellington dressed as the Pumpkin King from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) to me. And the effect it produces is not so much horror but more, “Oh wow! That’s a cool monster design!” And an accompanying desire to see more of the monster. Not quite the right effect for a horror film I think.

Anyway, the way these films that Wan puts out with their fantastic build up that keep collapsing at the climactic moments got me thinking about how past monster movie directors got it right. And I came to the conclusion that this is why Body Horror as a genre is something that’s always fascinated me.

One of the major struggles early horror filmmakers struggled greatly with (before the boons of CGI came along), was the creation of a monster that did not look like a man in a suit. But with Body Horror, you completely sidestep this problem because the horror is the human body, in particular the defamiliarisation of the human body, the making strange of it.

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That’s why movie monsters like H.R. Giger’s designs for the aliens in the Alien franchise (1979 – 1997) have infected the dreams of so many. The recognizable bone structures like the ribcage and vertebrae found on the outside of an alien species, human fingers used as legs for the facehugger, not to mention the phantasmagorical glimpses of human genitalia infused into the design of these creatures.

Or what about John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) where every part of the human body from blood to skin to organs can be made monstrous with gaping mouths finding a home in a person’s thoracic cavity while a decapitated head sprouts spider legs to scurry away on?

Or why is it that even with it’s much weaker storylines the cenobites of from Clive Baker’s Hellraiser franchise (1987 – 2011) continue to fascinate and horrify us?

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And what about The Exorcist (1973), greatest possession film of all time? No visual/physical representation of the demon at all other than what we’re offered through the tortured body of poor unfortunate Regan.

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I think the simple explanation for why these monsters are effective horrific-inducing  monster designs is because they point out that the horror is not out there but it’s in here, inside us and with us all the time. And while our eyes are looking outward trying to guard against an external, encroaching, invading horror, we’ve left ourselves blind to the horrors residing within us, that potential for monstrosity that we all carry within us.

So here’s to hoping that James Wan might consider some body horror for a more successful monster design for his next horror film.

Ps. I recognize that a lot of this is wishful thinking because possession narratives are about invasive, encroaching, intruding horror that tries to defile the human vessel but hey! if The Exorcist could do it… maybe Wan will find a way too?

History-History and Film History in Gangs of New York (2002)

We delved deep into Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002) in class over two, four-hour sessions, and here are some things I took away from class and things I noticed about the film after watching it this time round (my second viewing) for class.

While Gangs sets out to cover a lesser known episode in American history (the Draft Riot of 1863), I get the impression that this episode is only the backdrop against which a more expansive filmic project aimed at commenting on the nature of history, historiography and historical representation in film is set against. To support this claim, I want to talk about Anachronism and Intertextuality in Gangs of New York.

1) Anachronism: My sense of how the film seems to be about more than just the Draft Riot stems from the persistent use of anachronistic elements throughout the film. This is seen namely in terms of how the battle the film opens on begins deep within a cave-like structure that seems more ancient than the setting called for in a film set in the 1850s. This primitivism is also captured in the representation of multiple characters dressed in furs and attaching what looks like claws to their hands and feet in preparation for the upcoming battle.

The sartorial and setting choices that signify a kind of primitivism is carried into the choice of weaponry presented and used in the battle (axes, clubs, maces, bats, knives). The predominance of weaponry to do with bludgeoning one’s enemies to death and the distinct lack of firearms does not escape notice.

Add to this the kind of battle fought which was clearly based on earlier modes of battle which mostly involved close-contact fighting and were mostly wars of attrition where the side with the greater numbers would win.

Yet, the soundtrack that played over the first battle sequence had electric guitars in it? Man… that really took me out of the moment. Why were there electric guitars?

Anyway, the second battle sequence towards the end of the film between Amsterdam (DiCaprio) and Bill the Butcher (Day-Lewis) which takes place 16 years after the first battle, is shrouded in dust, smoke and debris and carries the distinct flavour of guerrilla urban warfare with Bill darting in and out of frame and using the smoke as cover to deliver lightning quick ambush attacks on Amsterdam before withdrawing back into the smoke.

This kind of fighting style is definitely post-Vietnam but more than that, it is also post-9/11. The obscuring of one’s vision with dust and debris become a symbolic representation of the confusion over not just where the attack is coming from but who the enemy is.

Finally, the final sequence in the film, a series of dissolves in which Priest Vallon’s and Bill the Butcher’s graves are shown succumbing to neglect in the foreground with the mushrooming skyscrapers of Manhattan in the background, serve as a bookend to the primitivism represented in the opening sequence. To open and close on these notes seem to suggest that the objective of the film and the historical reach of the film spans beyond the 1863 Draft Riot.

So the combination of the mix of battle modes and fighting styles that seem to originate in time periods either before the 1850s or long after the 1850s and the weirdly hyper-modern soundtrack choices (electric guitars and the U2 theme song – “The Hands that Built America”) makes the film highly anachronistic despite its claims of being a piece of historical fiction.

2) Intertextuality: Someone in class astutely pointed out that the film contained a reference to the Odessa Steps sequence in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925). This was the scene where the Schermerhorn residence was stormed by the angry, rioting mob. The camera moves pass Mr. Schermerhorn going to confront the mob while the women are being herded up the stairs in a traveling shot that pushes in and eventually rests on a shot of a stone lion at the foot of the stairs.

It’s definitely an odd choice of subject matter for the composition of the shot to centre on and something only a film student forced to sit through Eisenstein’s black and white film classic would pick up on or understand the significance of. The shot does put Gangs in dialogue with Battleship in a meaningful way though.

In the original Odessa Steps sequence, the faceless military and gunships open fire on unsuspecting civilians and there is a montage of shots of the stone lions. The montage creates an effect where these stone lions seem to take on a look of horror at the unfolding violence.

(the stone lion reaction shots are right at the end after the gunships fire on the citizenry)

In Gangs there is a reversal in the power dynamic because instead of the group in power (military/rich/aristocracy) firing on the disenfranchised (poor civilians/Irish immigrants), the reverse happens. The rioting mob breaks into the home of, and does violence to, the Schermerhorns – the contemporary equivalent of the aristocracy. Furthermore, there is a change of film technique from montage to a long take which seems to create not so much a look of horror on the lion’s countenance but rather an air of ineffectualness over one’s ability to stop the rising tide of violence.

The other meaningful moment of intertextuality in Gangs is at the end of the first battle sequence when the Dead Rabbits are carrying their dead out of Paradise Square the camera pulls up and out into an extreme long shot that is reminiscent of the Atlanta dead scene in Gone with the Wind (1939). Again, there is a 180 degree change in the meaning of the scene due to the way Scorsese uses it.

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In the original Atlanta dead scene in Gone with the Wind the extreme long shot was meant to emphasise the tragedy of the Civil War because of the rows and rows of casualties and dead the filled the screen to its edges and beyond. But in the extreme long shot enhanced by CGI in Gangs the sequence only serves to highlight the inconsequential nature of the clash between the Nativists and the Irish immigrant community as the site of the battle gets smaller and smaller as the “camera” pulls out to capture the whole isle of Manhattan within the frame.

Out of these two clearly deliberate and intentional moments of intertextuality in Gangs I get the impression that the historical project of the film seems to be as much about representing history in film as it is about a filmic representation of history… if that makes sense.

For clarity’s sake, what I’m trying to say is that the former is a straight up question of representing a different part of history in film. The latter is about how history gets reduced to these filmic moments that can become visual quotations, a shorthand that can then be put in dialogue with one another to generate whole new layers of meaning for those who have access to this shorthand and visual vocabulary.

There’s of course also a danger in this shorthand and films like Wag the Dog (1997) comment on this more as does the chapter on the Vietnam War in Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation… but that sounds like an entry for another time -_-“

Blitz Reviews: Ava’s Possession (2015), Rubber (2010), He Never Died (2015)

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Ava’s Possession (2015)

Ava’s Possession is a tight little whodunit wrapped up in a post-possession narrative set in a surprisingly expansive story world. The choice to focus on the period after possession already makes this story a unique narrative and automatically sets it up as a self-reflexive parody of this slice of the Horror genre.

While not the best written nor the best acted, Ava’s Possession does keep you guessing to the very end what transpired during and prior to Ava’s possession-induced fugue state. There are also some clever tongue-in-cheek moments like the spiritual AA meetings for the recovering possessed, that earn a snigger or two even if the gags don’t win you over with outright guffaws.

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He Never Died (2015)

Main protagonist, “Jack” (not his real name… trust me, you’ll recognize it when you find out), is a sympathetic monster with A LOT of backstory. In fact he has so much backstory they’re trying to turn this little film into a TV series. According to Billboard’s interview with lead actor Henry Rollins, the film is supposed to be an extended pilot to help them make the case for funding and support for a TV show.

All my fingers and toes are crossed for this one because it looks promising if they manage to tread the fine line between horror and humor. The apathetic lead’s bathetic sense of humor leads to many darkly funny moments doused in buckets of blood and I’m more than curious about his trunk of curios with the potential to get spun into seasons worth of episodes that span across genres and time periods.

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Rubber (2010)

An absurdist horror flick about a killer tire exploding heads à la Cronenberg’s Scanners, is on the loose. But the tire could stop killing and the police want to stop investigating if only the spectators would just politely stop watching.

This film casually flirts with the idea of breaking the fourth wall in an acutely aware presentation of style over substance to the point where sometimes you wished there was a bit more substance. Not a film for everyone but still a fun watch though with the right group of friends, and some alcohol to whet an appetite for the absurd.

Blitz Reviews: TMNT: Out of the Shadows (2016), We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), The Chaser (2008)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles : Out of the Shadows (2016)

I caught this with a friend last week knowing full well that it wasn’t doing too well at the box office and hadn’t been able to garner many favorable critical reviews. So I walked into the cinema with my expectations set pretty low and already expecting to be disappointed. I guess it comes as no surprise that I found that there were some things that I did like about the film and I thought I’d just devote some blog-space to that.

I was surprisingly pleased with the characterisation of Casey Jones. From what I remember of the cartoon I grew up watching, this dude is crazy. Or if not full-fledged crazy, definitely  a little off-kilter. So while some reviews that I’ve read talk about how Casey’s mood swings could give a member of the audience emotional whiplash, I thought the unpredictability of his character was kinda apt. I particularly appreciated his discomfiting level of comfort with the use of violence to get what he wanted despite being a member of the police force because as far as I can remember, Casey Jones has always been a good guy with a strong sense of justice but a very bad temper.

I also thought the consistency in the characterization of the turtles was also very well managed. From Leonardo’s struggle to make the right decision in order to keep his team of brothers with their varied temperaments together, Mikey’s and Raphael’s outgoing personalities and their desire for recognition, and Donatello just being the science dude.

I thought some of the plot points were surprisingly deep too. In particular the way in which the film handled the fissure in the group between those who want recognition and those who don’t mind staying in the shadows. For example, when Ralph and Mikey go off on their own to retrieve the purple goo from the Evidence Room at the police headquarters (that could potentially make them more human-looking) and make a complete mess of things, April and Casey, have to take the fall for them. The fact that their desire for recognition, which is not an unreasonable desire, met in a headlong collision with the dire consequences of their actions genuinely gives the audience pause and a moment of lovely ambiguity over whose side to take.

However, the film as a WHOLE, really could stand to benefit from more of this ambiguity. Instead, heroes that were actually pretty decently characterised spent most of their time facing off against such ineffectual and idiotic villains it just felt so disrespectful both to the audiences and to the franchise.

There was nothing grey or sympathetic about the two-dimensional cardboard villains the turtles had to go up against.

Baxter Stockman was a completely useless scientist who didn’t do anything of real value in the film at all yet expected to become a legend in the field of science. His greatest claim to fame is that he found Krang’s alien technology and had to assemble it to create a wormhole large enough to bring Krang’s Technodrome through. C’mon! Anyone who’s assembled an IKEA product could’ve done that…

Shredder “evilly” betrays Baxter Stockman only to be more “eviler-ly” betrayed by Krang… Like we didn’t see that coming a mile away… This move just served to demote Shredder from iconic villain of the franchise to little more than pawn and errand boy.

And Krang like some two-bit alien invader from the 80s with a one-track-minded, world-domination complex which the scriptwriters didn’t bother updating at all, couldn’t even get his Technodrome assembled in time to do anything before he was sent back through the wormhole.

There was definitely some potential with Laura Linney’s Chief Vincent who could’ve been a credible commentary on the hindrance of bureaucratic red-tape and discrimination based on looks, if only she was actually a credible character herself. Instead from the get-go she was dismissive, close-minded, unnecessarily angry all the time, and completely incompetent. So when she did have her moment of emotional growth and reversal of opinion about the turtles not being monsters despite their “monstrous” appearance, it counted for absolutely zip.

Bebop and Rocksteady I thought was another wasted opportunity to function as counterpoint to the turtles’ own desire to come “out of the shadows.”

They could also have been effective doubles for the turtles during the portion where they were struggling with team unity but instead the audience got treated to a highly forgettable fight scene down some rapids that ended in a sharp drop over the edge of a waterfall, not unlike the long sequence in the first film where they tried to outrun an avalanche.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

So I actually wrote like a 4000 word final paper on this film for my Psychopaths class so I’m sorta up to my ears in it already and don’t have much else to say about it unless I decide to cut and paste the essay here. But I do want to recommend this film to anyone who might be reading this blogpost because the film, while slow, is so formally aware it really plays with your expectations and makes you think you’ve seen things you really haven’t.

It’s well-acted, well-scripted, well-edited, it’s based on a great novel (I actually finished it… all 470 pages of it… I can’t believe it myself because I was so short on time during this summer class O_O) and just such a great little film I wish more people watched it because it totally deserves an audience.

I suppose one thing I wished I could have done in my essay but couldn’t because of the restrictiveness of the thesis I was working with, was to sit down and catalogue all the ways in which the film and the novel used literary and filmic doubling strategies to capture and portray the way in which trauma can simultaneously create a split in the self and a collapse of one’s self-identity.

Maybe that description will give you some idea of what it’s about? It’s a slow film but it doesn’t get boring. Really, do give it a shot.

The Chaser (2008)

Another film I celebrated the end of my first session of summer classes with was The Chaser – a dark film noir piece based on a real Korean serial killer. I was quite won over by how formalistically aware the film was for the most part until the last third of the film where the director seemed to have caved in to this need for melodrama with his use of manipulative musical crescendos and excessive slow-motion.

However, for most of the film, there is a seething, understated sense of horror bubbling just below the surface of an already seedy noir setting. While the film’s color palette serves to make everywhere appear dirty and grungy, coated with a layer of aged filth that no amount of scrubbing can get out, the lighting decisions sometimes bathes a scene in such stark lighting that one cannot look away from the horror.

I’ve included here in this short, blitz review the scene of a murder which received a very thoughtful treatment at the hands of director Hong-jin Na with its clever sound editing and intercuts to illustrates what I mean when I say this film is pretty subtle and formally aware: